Language and creativity continued…..more content and language integrated learning (CLIL)

At the start of the year I wrote a post about using elements of existing text in a creative way, both in terms of the meanings of the words themselves, but also ultimately in the way that they appear and are presented on the page. If you didn’t read the post it can be found here:

Language and Creativity

I mentioned the Newspaper Blackout work of Austin Kleon in what I wrote and included a TEDx presentation that he gave.  Since writing the first post I have bought a copy of his Newspaper Blackout ‘poetry’ for myself and have been taking a more focussed look at how he works.

Unlike the work of Tom Phillips (and his work A Humunent: a treated Victorian  Novel) who uses pages from a novel as his basis, Kleon uses pages from a newspaper. In doing this a few new options are opened up if used in a classroom situation:

  • There are greater varieties of theme on a single page
  • There are interesting varieties in letter types and layout arrangement
  • There may even be an occasional image that could be included
  • A degree of current affairs content comes into the classroom, at least at the beginning


As an arts teacher I find the simple blacking out of the unused text too simple for my taste. But to be fair to Austin Kleon, that isn’t the point here, it is about the words and letters on the page and how they are used.  This is where the creativity lies, this is where the language challenge lies and this is also why this work offers such great potential to a language teacher and I think especially the bilingual teacher. An existing page of text imposes limitations, but it also throws down challenges. The limitations, or maybe I should say, the framework in which the creative challenge needs to take place.

I was watching a film recently and the fashion designer John Galliano said ‘when you find yourself in a corner, that’s when you get creative’.  In a sense when you limit your pupils to just the words and text available on a single page you are placing them in such a corner.

On a broader level limitations and frameworks in which to work are maybe more important than we might think in the way we teach.  In the art room I am all for offering choices and variety.  However limitless choices can in the end be an obstacle.  A while back I was working on a photography project with my 15-16 year old pupils.  I wanted them to take a self-portrait photograph.  Having done a similar assignment a year earlier I knew how they had a tendency to all fall into the “selfie” snap shot direction.  So instead I asked them to model their portraits on one of a selection of old master paintings I gave them. My aim was to get them to look a little more carefully at the paintings, but above all to get them to consider what they were doing with the camera and use of light a great deal more.

The results in the end were generally very good, a few of the results can be seen here:

Frames of reference

It’s the clear parameters that seem to be working here.  They maybe even bring a slightly competitive edge to the challenge, maybe that’s where the positive response comes from. I think it is certainly where the strength of the work of Austin Kleon and Ted Phillips comes from when using it in a classroom context.


Language and creativity – content and language integrated learning idea (CLIL)

Most who work in education know that children generally respond well to games and puzzles. This is a short assignment that never fails to engage the attention and (particularly important for me) the creativity of the pupils. As I will explain the creativity comes in part with a drawing element at the end, but actually the area of greater creativity comes earlier in the part using language.

humunentBefore I start, I should perhaps explain that I first came across this idea in the work of the British artist Tom Phillips and in particular his book A Humunent: a treated Victorian  Novel. Although there are others who have subsequently used similar approaches such as Austin Kleon in his work and book entitled Newspaper Blackout.

Although these ideas come from a visual arts context do not get the idea that this is something only for the art department, as an assignment it has opportunities for language lessons and potentially other areas too. I often use it for cover lessons when I am absent from school for a day or have to fill in unexpectedly for a colleague.

Essentially the idea is very simple. You take a piece of existing text, from an old novel, a text book or newspaper article for example, and give the text to the pupils. Personally I love walking around at the start of a lesson ripping a book to pieces, it certainly succeeds in getting attention! It also ensures that everyone has a different piece of text, which I quite like, but isn’t absolutely necessary, copies from the copy machine are also fine.

Then, using the text that they have been given, and in the order that it appears on the page (so reading from top left to bottom right) they have to make a new version, a summary, a storyline or even a poem. The words that you don’t want to use simply have to be crossed out or better still completely obliterated. In the early stages it pays to be a little cautious, you don’t want to cross out anything that you later will want to use. Generally it quite quickly becomes evident that there are some words that seem loaded with meaning that just have to be used!

Imagine for a moment that the text below was the piece that you have been asked to work with:

One of the cardinal clichés about the English is that, as a nation, we are obsessed with trivial fluctuations in the weather. Lamenting the onset of a sudden shower could happily occupy two strangers on a railway station platform for several minutes – or, at least, that is the perception. Yet Weatherland, a beautiful new book by the British cultural historian Alexandra Harris, suggests that this cliché is a fair reflection of reality.

Moreover, the argument of the book, which examines how scores of great writers and artists have been inspired by English meteorological phenomena over the past two millennia, goes even further.

Summarizing assignment

Extracting the essence out of a text is the basis of writing summaries. This is the same here, but with an added language dimension, or if you prefer, restriction! It requires creativity and flexibility with the language options that are on offer, sometimes removing a single letter from the end of an existing word can make all the difference. Remember it’s all about summarizing the essence of the text as well as you can  with the text and words that you have to work with. The result might look something like this.

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A more playful assignment

For a more creative variation, perhaps more suited for a language lesson, give the pupils a free choice of coming up with the most fantastic, imaginative and inventive new storyline, as long that is, that the grammar used still fits together and is correct. Our same initial text might produce a result like this:

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The full creative assignment

For the full creative explosion of the idea combine the idea above with a drawing assignment where the whole design and layout of the page has to be activated to tell the storyline that has been created. At this point the sky is the limit, after an initial planning stage the pages used could be enlarged to open up the full creative possibilities.

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I’ve experimented a number of times with these assignments. They really do engage the pupils in language and creativity, particularly at the puzzling out with the text stage. Believe it is well worth trying, regardless of what sort of teacher you are and which subject you teach.

The examples above have been made on my iPad, an ideal tool for experimenting with this although for the full creative effect hand-made offers so much, as Tom Phillips shows in his original work. It is really worth taking a look at his site:

Austin Kleon talks about his work in this area in his TEDx presentation about his books Steal Like an Artist and Newspaper Blackout, also well worth a look.